October 28, 2010
A new paper on how assassin bugs play on the web strings of spiders to lure them to their untimely end got a lot of publicity this week for good reason: "aggressive mimicry," in which a predator imitates something (for example, prey or a potential mate) that its prey is instinctively primed to approach, is intriguing on a number of counts. The paper, by Anne Wignall and Phillip Taylor of Macquarie University in Australia, details experiments they conducted to discover how the araneophagic Stenolemus bituberus tricks spiders into coming along the web to have a closer look. Mark Kinver at the BBC, Duncan Geere at Wired Science, and Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News all have good summaries.
But these summaries all focus on the assassin bug and its remarkably skillful underhandedness. I can't help but focus on the spider. (more…)
October 18, 2010
Genetics papers can be pretty impenetrable to us non-geneticists. But geneticists don't write the way they do just so they'll be perceived as eggheads.
It took me, an English major with not much science background beyond high school courses, many months to learn how to decipher the genetics papers that inform Spider Silk. Of course, I was lucky enough to have Cay Craig guide me through these papers and steer me back on track when I veered astray. During this process, I came to realize that genes and genetic research is even more complicated than most of us non-biologists realize. For many of us, it's a mystery why news reports about exciting discoveries in genetics don't lead rapidly to successful medical or other practical applications.
I now get that it's no mystery, or conspiracy. This longer-than-usual post is an attempt to walk through an intriguing paper by a genetics team that writes unusually clearly. Even so, the paper is shot through with terms such as "paralog," "diploid," "retroposition," and "fluorescence in situ hybridization." These terms immediately convey images and lines of logic to other geneticists but gaping black holes to the rest of us. I'm going to avoid such terms as much as possible as I walk through the paper. But I think you'll still see how many interlocking and complex concepts and techniques evolutionary geneticists have to wrestle with, and why even dazzling genetics papers usually lead to more papers rather than to immediate, dramatic applications. (more…)